Time-jumping ‘In Every Generation’ shows how faith rocks a family, from one Passover to another
New play at Victory Gardens makes some smart points about religion as ritual, until an unfortunate final twist.
Four Passover Seders provide the backdrop for Ali Viterbi’s new family drama “In Every Generation,” which interestingly explores some well-worn questions about Jewishness as both a religion and a heritage, and how stories become rituals even at the nuclear-family level.
In the play’s first act, set in 2019, the Levi-Katz family gathers at the Los Angeles home that Valeria (Eli Katz) shares with daughter Dev (Sarah Lo), who moved back home after college and is casting about for her next step. Younger daughter Yael (Esther Fishbein), 19, is back home from Yale for spring break, and Valeria’s parents Paola (Carmen Roman) and Davide (Paul Dillon) have joined for the holiday feast — an undertaking that Valeria, it’s implied, wasn’t exactly eager to host.
Through the family’s crosstalk, we soon pick up on several sources of tension. It seems Yael and Dev’s father, a rabbi, left Valeria for another congregant at the synagogue a little under a year ago, leaving Valeria soured on practicing religion and the girls walking on eggshells. Davide, who’s been diagnosed with ALS, uses a wheelchair and a feeding tube and has recently lost the power to speak.
When: Through May 1
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission
The carefully ordained ritual of the Seder itself, which recounts and commemorates the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, also raises some familial issues. Yael, with all the wisdom of a semester-and-a-half of college, wants to make it known that as American Jews with wealth and whiteness on their side, her family doesn’t face the same kind of oppression that Passover memorializes.
Her grandmother, who was made an orphan by World War II at the age of 5 and was raised by nuns in an Italian convent, begs to differ: We are free for now, she says with a smile. Yael also brings up a scientific study she’s recently heard about involving mice passing emotional trauma down to their descendants, and excitedly opines about the possibility of studying “inherited trauma” among Jews.
All of this talk of ancestral lines and “genetic oppression” is understandably triggering for Dev, who was adopted from a Chinese orphanage; she’s more engaged in the study of Judaism than her sister or her mother, but the ancestry isn’t biologically hers, and she worries about her place in the faith and in the family.
If this seems like a lot of exposition to absorb in a single act, it is—and there’s plenty more I haven’t touched on. But the info dump and hyper-conflict is somewhat par for the course for this kind of dinner-table drama; it might be unlikely for all of this mishegoss to come out across the course of one meal, but dramatic compression requires it.
Director Devon de Mayo and scenic designers Andrew Boyce and Lauren Nichols have reconfigured Victory Gardens’ main theater for an in-the-round experience, so we in the audience are also “across the table” from one another, helping to create an intimate feeling.
And the first two scenes of Viterbi’s second act also center on a Seder table. The first scene jumps back in time to Paola and Davide’s first Passover as a couple in America, in which we learn some new information about Davide’s survival at Auschwitz. (Dillon and Roman manage a very cute regression to playing characters in their early 20s, overcoming some very silly wigs.)
Then Viterbi shoots forward to 2050, when Yael and Dev reunite in the wake of another very bad time for the Jews in America—a suggested near-future that’s all too easy to imagine given the country’s increasingly tribal political climate.
Had “In Every Generation” ended there, it would be a didactic but smart and moving exploration of religion as ritual and vice versa. But Viterbi adds a fourth scene, one that transports us all the way back to “1416 BCE” — the O.G. Passover. Except the ancient Jews are speaking in a strangely modern American vernacular—and also lapsing into Italian?
The final scene is further invaded by 21st-century artifacts, which the actors dig out of the miniature sand dunes that separate the audience from the playing space: first the symbolic elements of the Seder plate, but then a digital recorder, and a can of Diet Coke, all calling back to the very American milieu of the Levi-Katz family.
This late injection of anachronistic whimsy into what has up to now been a realistic family drama — even allowing for its speculative vision of the future — unfortunately, suggests a hokey children’s pageant, undermining the seriousness of Viterbi’s more mature arguments.